April 17, 2024

An eye-tracking study shows a link between women’s visual behavior on Instagram and body image

Can the way you feel about your body and the way you view posts on social media have anything to do with it? A study published in Computers in Human Behavior tracked women’s eye movements while looking at Instagram posts to find out how their viewing behavior relates to their body image.

Social media is an almost unavoidable part of everyday life for most people. While social media can foster connection and communication, and its wider popularity, there is an increased risk of exposing harmful ideas or images. One very common negative outcome of social media use is social comparison of oneself to ideal body types leading to negative self-image and lowered self-esteem.

This phenomenon is especially common when using Instagram, a social media site focused specifically on images. Eye tracking is a useful tool for such situations and can help determine how people interact with images, including suggesting whether they are using top-down or bottom-up processing. This study sought to understand what people’s eyes fixate on in images and how that relates to body image.

For their study, Graham G. Scott and his colleagues used 60 people who identified as women recruited from a university to act as their sample. 93% of the participants had Instagram and the 7% who did not reported that they were familiar with the site. Participants were shown images of one face or one body face of women who were overweight, average or overweight.

Participants viewed a 3 x 4 photo array made to resemble the layout of Instagram on a mobile phone. There were 2 pictures of each condition in the array. Participants rated their own body satisfaction. Their eye movements while looking at the photo array were recorded with an eye tracker.

The results indicated an attentional bias for underweight bodies and average faces. This meant that participants looked at average faces and overweight bodies for longer and were more likely to fixate on those images. These results are consistent with current beauty standards that favor thin bodies and average faces.

Images of bodies were looked at more often and longer than images of faces. This may be because bodies provide more clues about a person’s weight than faces, so these images may be more informative for users comparing themselves to others.

Interestingly, the study found that a person’s feelings about their body can affect the images they look at and how long they look at them. Those who were less satisfied with their own bodies tended to look at images of overweight bodies and faces.

The results showed support for the idea that image content stimulated bottom-up processing and that personal perception influenced top-down processing. Bottom-up processing involves starting with the basic information or data and then building up to a complete understanding or perception. It is driven by the raw data we receive from our senses. On the other hand, top-down processing involves using our existing knowledge and expectations to interpret new information.

In terms of bottom-up processing, the visual characteristics of the images (eg, body shape and body part depicted) influenced how long and how often participants looked at them. Thus, the raw, sensory data (the images) were driving the participants’ behavior.

On the other hand, for top-down processing, participants’ self-perceptions influenced where they looked and how often. For example, if a participant was unhappy with her own body, she may have viewed images of overweight women less frequently, perhaps due to increased anxiety or discomfort.

This study took interesting and significant steps to better understand how women view social media images. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the participants were only women and only images of women were shown. Future research could expand and provide gender diversity in samples and stimuli. In addition, this study used images with no accompanying text, and previous research suggests that text or comments with images may have a mediating effect.

“In conclusion, by measuring the eye movements of female Instagram users while viewing stimulus arrays containing images of underweight, average, and overweight female bodies and faces, we found differential effects of bottom-up and top-down factors. These were differentially expressed in ‘where’ and ‘when’ measures of eye movement behavior,” the researchers wrote.

“Bottom-up factors such as Body Part and Body Shape particularly dominated the ‘when’ eye movement measures, although participants’ body satisfaction influenced the ‘where’ measures in a top-down fashion. Participants selectively attended to bodies over faces and overall preferred Light and Medium images and Overweight images. Participants avoided viewing images that showed their own areas of lower body satisfaction.”

“These findings provide insight into the mechanisms behind a potentially dangerous cycle promoted by social media platforms; Exposure to harmful images leads to increased social comparison and personal satisfaction of the users. This, in turn, may foster a perceptual bias to selectively attend to stimuli that are more damaging.”

The study, ““Thinstagram”: Image content and viewer body satisfaction influence when and where eye movements occur when viewing instagram images“, written by Graham G. Scott, Zuzana Pinkosova, Eva Jardine, and Christopher J. Hand.

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